China reclamation continues in disputed sea, says US think tank

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An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, in this May 11, 2015 file photo. U.S. plans to send warships or military aircraft within 12 nautical miles of China's artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, possibly within days, could open a tense new front in Sino-U.S. rivalry. REUTERS/Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool/Files

A US think tank monitoring China’s island-building in the South China Sea has debunked claims by the country’s officials that they have stopped reclamation activities in the disputed waters.

“But this is false,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report dated Aug. 9

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the just-concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meetings in Manila, said China had not carried out reclamation for two years and hinted that Vietnam, another claimant nation in the sea, was “perhaps” the one doing it.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano of the Philippines, another claimant, admitted on Tuesday that the Philippines was one of the nations that opposed the inclusion of tough language against China, particularly the mention of “militarization,” in an ASEAN joint communiqué on the issue.

The customary statement’s release was delayed over reported disagreements by ASEAN foreign ministers, with Vietnam urging other southeast Asian nations to take a stronger stand against China.

Mr. Cayetano said the widely debated wordings would not have been reflective of the current situation because China is “not reclaiming land anymore.”

Showing satellite images, AMTI noted that it “carefully” documented Vietnam’s expansion of its facilities in areas it claims in recent years, adding that China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015.

“[W]ith the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys… Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands,” the Washington-based think tank said.

“The two most recent examples of this are at Tree Island and North Island in the Amphitrite Group. AMTI previously reported on work at these features, which has continued in recent months,” it added.

“Both Beijing and Hanoi have undertaken dredging and reclamation work as recently as early 2017. Neither approaches the scale of what China did from late 2013 to mid-2015, but any such work is environmentally destructive, undermines regional stability, and warrants mention in diplomatic statements,” AMTI said.

Aside from China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, two other ASEAN countries — Brunei and Malaysia — have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which is widely seen as a potential regional flashpoint. — Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral